Tablecloths & Table Settings: Perfect Table Covering Options

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Friends are coming over for an impromptu dinner. Or maybe the husband’s parents are visiting for Thanksgiving. The children’s birthdays are coming up, and you need to plan the decor.

No matter the occasion, whenever food is involved, table dressing and decoration is almost as important as the meal itself. Table dressing has a long history; even in medieval times, kings and lords had white table linens, a sure sign of wealth and power, draped over the tables before serving a feast.

Although the white damask tablecloth is certainly traditional, modern table fashions have evolved and now present thousands of patterns, colors and shapes. How to choose the right table covering style for the occasion? Here’s a short how-to guide.

Eclectic Dining Room design by Photographer Elad Gonen & Zeev Beech

What’s the occasion?

Occasions for meals are as numerous as meals themselves. It can be as simple as a Sunday family dinner, or as formal as a wedding reception. Just as you wouldn’t wear your faded jeans to a formal reception, your table also needs to be appropriately dressed for the occasion.

More formal events like weddings, funerals and christenings will require a more formal table dressing. In these cases, the white damask tablecloth is a classic and safe choice. You can also get away with off-white or very small, discreet patterns, as long as they do not call attention to themselves.

Semi-formal events, mostly involving family gatherings, open up more creative possibilities. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Memorial and Independence Day and a lot of other holidays don’t require the formality of a white tablecloth. The colors of the season are always appropriate: oranges, browns and reds for Thanksgiving, green, red and white for Christmas and spring pastels for Easter are only a few examples. If you’re looking for a more formal look, you can always pair a season-appropriate tablecloth with a white lace table runner in the middle. It will give your table a touch of formal nobility, without going overboard.

Informal or casual occasions such as birthdays, dinner parties and friendly gatherings do not require much formality in table dressing. A clean tablecloth fitting the colors of your dining room or place mats will suffice. Often, these occasions don’t even involve a sit-down meal, so there’s no need to fuss over the table covering.

Who’s coming?

Receiving your husband’s traditional family will require a different approach than getting your friends together for a girls’ night. When planning your table dress, reflect on the nature of your relationship with your guests. Are they in a position of power? What values do they live by? What does “meal time” mean to them? How close are you?

General guidelines are as follows: people in a position of power (a boss, a curate or a politician) will appreciate a more formal setting. People with traditional values who see meal time as a sacred family gathering will also like to see a fancier table when they come over. Friends and equals, or people you have a close relationship with, will be happy with your usual table decoration and will not feel slighted if you don’t take out the silverware for them.

If you’re not sure of your guests’ values or expectations, you can never go wrong with a more formal setting. Without having to take out the wedding china, a nice white tablecloth with matching plates and utensils will go a long way. A good hostess possesses several sets for different occasions.

Some table dressing trends

Now that you know about the basics of table setting, I’ll discuss some current table trends to spark your imagination.

Embroidery: Instead of getting printed material, look at more delicate embroidered motifs. They bring an instant retro, hand-made flavor to your table.

Ethnic: Some current trends include Middle-Eastern, European and Japanese patterns.

Different shapes: Think outside the square. Get an oval or oblong cloth and put in on a rectangular table. A rectangle tablecloth will look smashing placed on a round table. You can also get modern geometrical prints combined with a more traditional cloth shape. Show a little avant-garde!

Tone on tone: Damask patterns, especially on blacks, greys and jewel tones, are popular these days. The monochrome look inspires a modern, minimalist table.

Plaid: Not just for skirts anymore, plaids are great for casual table dressing. The color combinations in plaid patterns leave room for more colorful tables.

Place mats: Place mats are an increasingly popular option. If you want to show off your table’s natural wood color, place mats are the obvious choice. They come in a wide variety of patterns, materials and colors to fit any level of formality or decor.

What does your table look like? Do you dress it differently depending on the occasion, or do you prefer the casual, unfussy table? Share your ideas and thoughts in the comments!

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Anabelle Bernard Fournier

Anabelle is a freelance writer, writing teacher and blogger. She spends a lot of time at home, so she likes to make sure that it's cozy and nice, especially in her reading nook. In her free time, Anabelle knits, walks and learns how to write stories.